I will admit that despite the title of this article, running a game for more than 4 players is really challenging and, in my humble opinion, close to impossible. That’s not to say that it can’t be done, but I don’t think I have the experience to undertake such a gargantuan task.
I’ve run a game for 8 players a few months ago, and I can say with certainty that I will not be doing it again, as neither my players nor me had fun that day. Combat especially was a drag and people quickly got bored of waiting for their turn. Even what was supposed to be quick combat encounters turned into a long slog and both me and my players quickly got tired of it. That day was a few months ago and it was the day I decided I would never run such a big table again.
That was the end of a campaign I’ve been running for a year (which may sound like a long time but we played once a month at best). By “end of a campaign” I don’t mean that the campaign ended in a satisfying way. It just kind of stopped. That was because story-wise, all of the players were needed for each game and had a part to play, but after that game nobody had any interest in continuing.
But the issue was that I still had a group chat of 10 players that all wanted to play D&D. A group of mostly new players with little to no interest in DMing. You see the problem?
It took months to decide what I was going to do, but I finally reached a conclusion which my players all accepted and we’ve been playing every week for a month now.
The West Marches Campaign
The West Marches style of game is a clearly defined thing that has existed for many years now (popularised by Ben Robbins) and I don’t think it 100% represents what happens on my table, but it’s close enough and I’m not aware of any other term to best describe it.
So let’s first start with what a West Marches game actually is before diving into how I run it.
- There is no regular party. There is instead, a large pool of 10 or more players (and sometimes more than one DM). It’s up to the players to decide who they’ll play with at any give session.
- A West Marches game is not a game that has a regular schedule. The players decide when and with whom they will play. That alleviates some of the burden of scheduling from the DM and encourages players to do more than just show up.
- There is no overarching plot per se. It’s up to the players to decide what they want to do and where they want to go in advance. That doesn’t mean that there is no story, just that every session has its own self contained story. It also doesn’t mean that the characters can’t have personal goals that they want to achieve. The only thing that stays constant is the environment that the players can explore.
- Every session begins and ends at some kind of base, which could be a town, city etc. That means that every session is self contained. The characters go on an adventure and return to their home base by the end of it, having gained treasure and experience.
- The map is player generated and can be inaccurate. This encourages exploration and characters may get lost. It lends a layer of realism to the game that many players and DMs find attractive.
How I run the West Marches Campaign
First of all my group chat consists of 10 players, 8 of which are currently active. I then told my players to decide to split up into two groups of 4 players each. That, of course, doesn’t mean that these two groups are written in stone. They can change depending on the needs of they players (like scheduling conflicts) or the needs of the adventure (we need healing!).
The next step was to create a starting town. I had only run villages before and wanted something larger, where the players could have political power, and where a myriad of adventures could spring up. I didn’t want a big city like Waterdeep so I created a town, big enough to have an adventuring guild but small enough that I didn’t have to create tons of content and NPCs.
I then run a session zero where I shared my ideas with the players. They liked the idea of being in an adventurer’s guild, and operating in this small town and the surrounding area so I run with it.
I then told them that they would be starting at level 4 which meant that they’d been operating in the town for about 6 in-game months. This implies that they are known around town as the problem solvers.
Last but not least, I gave them a base of operations. It was an old, decrepit building that used to be an Inn that burned down. It had enough room to house all of them and the ground floor could be used for whatever they wanted. They decided to run a tavern, using a back room as an office to get jobs from the citizens of the town.
So all of the 8 players operate from the same building at the same town, but narratively, they go on adventures with whoever they think best fits the problem at hand.
Scheduling games used to be the biggest hassle I had to face as everyone’s jobs and life required them to either miss games or be there at specific times. So I made a Google Sheet where I put a table with everyone’s name and days that they where available. After I shared the sheet with them, and told them to vote on which days they were free to play, I had one day that seemed to work for everyone. After we established a time, everything was set.
Each group of 4 would be playing every 2 weeks in an alternating fashion. This means that I would still be running a game every week, but with different players each time.
One big advantage with this style of play is that without the burden of a larger plot, I can experiment more with how I run the game. This game has been going on for about a month now and I feel good enough about it that I’d like to run a more roleplay heavy kind of Downtime. I’ve never done downtime this way before and I’m excited to try.
What adventures I run
What I’ve detailed in this article mostly has to do with the backend of running the game (scheduling etc). But what adventures can you run with this style of game? I have good news since just about anything will be a great fit for this campaign.
So far I’ve only run modules but you could also make your own adventures. This style of play allows you to have adventures that are very different to each other and it makes sense narrative-wise as well because at the end of the day, the characters are running an adventuring business and will take almost any job.
This has cut my preparation time by a huge amount because I no longer have to think about how an adventure will fit into the overarching plot. You could say it’s like a “monster of the week” kind of thing.
Guest DMs and guest player characters
So as you may have guessed already, this style of game is very flexible when it comes to pretty much every aspect of it. That means that if a new person wants to try D&D, you can easily explain their character’s presence in your campaign (e.g. a travelling adventurer).
It also means that if a player wants to try their hand in DMing they also can, without having to think about how to not affect your bigger plot.
Your West Marches Campaign
In this article I’ve written about how I do things and also given you all the information you need to run a West Marches style of game yourself. You can do what I did and loosely follow the “rules” or go in a completely different direction that best fits your group. Go nuts!